I remember hearing about the Willis girls just before my father's 80th birthday party. Relatives and friends were coming from thousands of miles away to Spur, Texas, a town of 1300. Among those expected were the Willis girls--four sisters, all in their 70's. They had grown up around Spur but had been gone for a long time. I wasn't sure why my dad was so happy to hear they were coming--or so disappointed when they changed their minds.
Two years after my father's big party, my mother died. They'd been together 53 years. All through her illness--for almost two months--he stayed with her in the hospital, often 24 hours a day.
A few days after the funeral, my dad and I played golf on Spur's hard-scrabble course. On the ninth tee, he surveyed the landscape: scrawny mesquite trees, dying grass, sand and a tick-ridden jack rabbit.
"It's a pretty, old world," he said.
It was one of the bravest statements I'd ever heard. My dad knew that he had a lot of trials ahead of him--loneliness, an aging body--but it was still a pretty, old world.
Worried about him being alone, I called him once a day after I returned home to New York. Occasionally he mentioned one of the Willis girls--Gussie Lee--who now lived in Sacramento, Calif. She'd lost her husband, and she and my father, Clyde, had begun to talk on the phone. Their discussions would end with Clyde pressing her to visit. "Someday," she'd reply.
It was almost two years before Gussie came back to Spur. Clyde met the flight and studied the passengers with growing disappointment. She wasn't on the plane. She hadn't come. Then she marched right up to him and demanded, "Are you Clyde Latham?"
Startled and suddenly smiling, he admitted: "Why, yes, I am."
They headed for baggage claim. "I'm sorry I didn't recognize you," he said.
"You weren't looking for a little old lady," said Gussie.
"That's the problem. I was looking for a little old lady. When none got off the plane, I was stumped."
"Cross my old heart."
They collected her bag and headed for the car. Gussie had deliberately packed for only four days——an excuse for a short visit.
As they drove toward Spur, Clyde kept Gussie laughing with his stories of youthful pranks and Texas goat drives. Soon the rectangular farms gave way to rugged ranch land, canyons, ravines, red earth——and lots of mesquite trees.
"Aren't they pretty?" Gussie said, a new energy in her voice.
The forgotten beauty of West Texas caught Gussie off guard. And something else did to laughter. She felt that she'd been crying for two years, ever since her Bill died, and now she was laughing. It was water to a parched soul.
The next day Clyde took Gussie sightseeing. "Stop!" Gussie called. "I want to pick some cotton."
Clyde pulled over, and Gussie hopped out and plunged into the cotton. When she was a girl, the burs had cut her hands, but picking this new cotton was fun. She hurried back to the car with her arms full of white fluff.
Gussie and Clyde told each other they would never get married again. He was 84, she was 81, and they were too old for such shenanigans.
The night before she was supposed to leave, Gussie and Clyde settle down in his side-by-side reclining chairs. One last time, he tried to persuade her to stay a little longer.
"I'll stay another week if you'll promise me one thing," Gussie said.
"Anything," Clyde replied.
"Get a girlfriend after I go. You enjoy a woman's company so much."
When Gussie called home to tell her children, they were stunned. They'd never known their mother to outstay her packing before.
Hearing about these developments, I was uneasy. I'd worried about my father being alone, but I also worried about his getting hurt. How would he feel when she went back to California?
Gussie's extra week in Spur passed all too quickly. The evening before her departure, she and Clyde sat holding hands. He had something he wanted to say, but he was a little nervous. He wasn't a shy man; he was just having trouble finding voice. Eventually it turned up.
"Gussie, I love you," Clyde said.
She was shocked. She hadn't expected him to say that. They should have left romantic love behind them a long time ago. And yet Gussie startled herself when she replied, "I love you too."
They both sat there in a state of wonder.
On my father's first day without Gussie, I called to see how he was doing. I dialed his number, and kept dialing for the next hour and a half, only to get a busy signal. Finally I got through. "Are you all right?"
"Oh, I was just talking to Gussie."
The last time I'd talked on the phone like that was when I was in high school. When I called my father the next day, nobody answered. Clyde had caught a flight to Sacramento.
"Gussie, I want to get married," he told her. "Will you marry me?"
"I'll marry you," she said.
On November 1, just a week after my dad had arrived in California, Clyde and Gussie got married. On the plane back to Spur, they chattered away about relatives, each other, their adventure to come.
When they landed, a stranger approached and said, "It's great you two still find each other so interesting. How long have you been married?"
"Three days," Gussie said.
Less than six months after their wedding, Clyde woke up one night with his left foot throbbing. Gussie drove her husband to the hospital, 35 miles away. He was released two days later.
During his second hospitalization, Clyde told the doctor over and over, "I'm worried about Gussie. It's not fair to her. I didn't mean to get her into all this."
Doctors couldn't detect a pulse in his left foot, probably because blood clots were clogging the arteries. They had to be cleaned out or Clyde might lose his leg. Cleaning would mean surgery. Gussie sagged.
That evening I flew in from New York, and the next morning I visited my mother's grave. My father's name was carved on the tombstone with my mother's. Clyde and Gussie had agreed that he would be buried beside my mother, and Gussie eventually would lie next to her late husband, Bill.
Standing there, I recalled my mother's last days in the hospital. My father had stayed with her around the clock. "Don't worry about me," he said, "Save your worry for your mama."
I recalled a phrase that Abraham Lincoln had once used: "the last full measure of devotion." In those final days of mother's life, my father had given the last full measure of everything that was within him. He had proved his love and devotion completely. Nothing that happened later, not his remarriage, not his new life, could diminish that. My father had earned the right to move on.
Four days after Clyde's surgery, there was still no pulse in his foot. "We're going to have to amputate," said the doctor. Clyde took the news matter-of-factly: "Anyway, maybe it won't hurt anymore."
Early in the morning, Gussie kissed Clyde good-bye. He told her, "You be good now. I hear lots of romances start in hospital waiting rooms." They laughed, and he went through the black doors.
When Clyde woke up, he complained of a terrible pain in his stomach. Once again he was rushed into surgery. Once again Gussie and I spent long hours waiting.
That night, Clyde fought back. I knew it was because of Gussie. If my father hadn't been in love, he would have gone quietly to lie down next to my mother. But he wasn't about to depart this earth now.
The crisis passed, but the next morning Clyde's condition was still grave. Gussie sat there exhausted, trying to put on a bright face.
"How are you?" someone asked.
"Oh, I'll be all right," Gussie said. "Don't worry about me."
I began to realize that Gussie was offering her own last true measure of devotion. I hugged her, and she began to cry. I cried too——because I was feeling the happiness that comes out the the sharpest pain.
That was over a year ago——a year of changes for all of us. Recently I flew to Texas for another of my father's birthdays. When I reached his house, I entered through the back and looked around. They weren't in the kitchen or the living room.
I finally found them in the den, sitting side by side in their recliners, fast asleep, holding hands. It sure was a pretty, old world.